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Libyan forces corner Daesh militants in Sirte

By AFP - Aug 29,2016 - Last updated at Aug 29,2016

SIRTE, Libya — Libya's pro-government forces on Monday cornered Daesh extremists in their last holdouts in the coastal city of Sirte, after heavy fighting that left dozens of dead and wounded.

The battle for Daesh's North African stronghold was launched more than three months ago by forces loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

Loyalist forces have been backed by US air raids for almost a month, amid international concern over the extremists' growing influence.

Daesh overran the Mediterranean hometown of Libya's slain dictator Muammar Qadhafi in mid-2015, sparking fears the extremists would use it as a springboard for attacks on Europe.

Pro-GNA forces on Monday said they had encircled the extremists in less than two square kilometres of Sirte, after staging an assault the previous day on its last two Daesh-held districts.

The anti-Daesh fighters "seized a little more than half of district Number Three and 70 per cent of district Number One" in the downtown seafront area, they said.

At least 38 pro-GNA fighters have been killed and 185 wounded since they began the "final battle" to retake all of Sirte on Sunday, the hospital for the loyalist forces in the nearby city of Misrata said. 

The pro-GNA field hospital in Sirte on Sunday called for blood donations.

Daesh casualty figures have been unavailable.

The extremists deployed at least 12 suicide car bombs in a last bid to slow the loyalist advance, pro-GNA forces said.

 

Mosque retaken 

 

After sporadic clashes during the night, the front was calm on Monday morning, according to an AFP photographer in the city 450 kilometres east of Tripoli.

“Our forces are preparing to launch a new assault on the area where Daesh is encircled,” said a spokesman for the pro-GNA campaign, Reda Issa.

In district Number Three, loyalists have retaken the Qortoba Mosque, which the extremists had renamed after slain Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the campaign’s media office said.

Daesh set fire to the mosque’s library after entering the city, killing an imam and using its courtyard for “torture and executions”, it said.

In June 2015, Daesh militants seized Sirte, hoisting their black flag above the city.

Pro-GNA forces fought their way into Sirte a year later, this June 9, but their advance has been hampered by snipers, suicide bombings and booby traps.

More than 400 loyalists have been killed and nearly 2,500 wounded in the battle for Sirte since May, medical sources say.

The pro-GNA forces are mostly militias from western cities backing the unity government of premier-designate Fayez Al Sarraj and the guards of oil installations that Daesh has repeatedly tried to seize.

Backed by US air strikes since August 1, they managed to seize the militants headquarters at the Ouagadougou conference centre on August 10, pinning down Daesh militants near the sea.

 

1,000 Daesh militants 

 

As of August 24, US warplanes had carried out 82 strikes, according to the US Africa Command.

Since Tuesday, the United States has also begun using more precise AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopters in the operation. 

The United States also leads a coalition fighting Daesh in Syria and Iraq, where the extremists seized large swathes of territory in 2014.

Analysts say ousting Daesh from Libya would be a symbolic boost for the country’s fragile unity government, but unrest might continue as Daesh could carry out more scattered attacks across Libya.

Before it was seized by Daesh, Sirte was home to some 120,000 residents, but a pro-GNA military leader said this month that all had fled except for the families of the extremists.

Pentagon spokesman Gordon Trowbridge this month estimated that extremists in Sirte numbered fewer than 1,000.

Daesh took advantage of the chaos in Libya after the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed Qadhafi, as rival militias and authorities have vied for control of the oil-rich country.

A UN-brokered deal struck in December led to Sarraj’s unity government starting to work in the capital Tripoli, but it has since struggled to fully assert its authority over the country.

The presidential council headed by Sarraj said last Wednesday it would present a new cabinet line-up in an attempt to secure the backing of parliament.

 

The legislature rejected a previous line-up on August 22, setting a “final” time limit of 10 days for the council to propose a new cabinet team.

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